Kasha – The Corpse-Eating Cat Demon

Sourced and translated from Mizuki Shigeru’s Hyakumonogatari, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, Yokai Jiten, Nihon Kokugo Dai-ten, and Other Sources

If you have been a bad person all your life, your troubles are not over when you are dead. During your funeral procession, as the priest and the mourners carry your coffin there is suddenly a crack of thunder and roaring from the sky to steal your dead body and drag it to hell comes … what? A flaming chariot? A cat demon? A cat demon riding a flaming chariot?

Or maybe you have just died at home, and your once beloved house pet thinks that your sin-ridden body would make a delicious snack.

Kasha are one of the most confused of Japan’s yokai. Over the centuries kasha have evolved from a fiery cart pulled by devils to an aged cat that changes form into a corpse-eating monster. Even the calling them yokai is dubious. Although yokai can be a catch-all term for Japan’s monsters, the kasha are more properly demons. They have more in common with Hell-dwellers like oni, and are found on Kamakura period Hell Portraits designed to terrify people into following the righteous path of the Buddha.

What does Kasha mean?

Kasha uses the kanji火車 which translates easily as Fire (火) chariot (車). The kanji can also be read more explicitly as hi no kuruma (火の車 ) meaning the same thing.

That’s the easy part. Now what is a kasha? That’s the hard part.

Kasha – The Fire Chariot

During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), there was an apocalyptic belief in mappō, meaning the Latter of the Days of Law. Like some Christians today, Buddhist believed they were living in End Times and had no more life times in which to which to redeem their souls; they were stuck between Hell and redemption by the Amida Buddha. This lead to a form of art called Hell Scrolls (地獄草紙; Jigoku Zoshi), which depicted the painful suffering awaiting those who didn’t hurry up and get saved.

Most of these paintings depicted oni tearing people apart and feasting on their body parts. And sometimes these oni carried these poor bodies in flaming carts. The belief eventually developed that oni crawled the Earth looking for sinners and piled them in flaming carts or chariots to drag before the dread judge of Hell Emma-O.

As with much Japanese folklore, the image of the flaming chariot took a nap while Japan fought the massive civil war known as the Sengoku era, and was re-awakened during the Edo period yokai boom. Stories began to appear in kaidan-shu collections of the kasha, or hi no kuruma, a flaming cart that descended from the sky. The cart was said to be accompanied by thunder and great winds, and a funeral procession where thunder was heard raised an alarm that the kasha was coming.

The role of the kasha was undecided early on. In the early Edo period book Kii-zodanshu (奇異雑談集; 1687; A Collection of the Idle Chat of Mysterious Things) there is a story called “The Thing that came from the storm clouds to steal a corpse in the Manor House near the rice fields of Echigo.” During a funeral procession there was a loud clap of thunder and a beast riding a flaming cart came down from the sky and snatched the dead body. An illustrator depicted the kasha as being ridden by Raidin, the Shinto deity of thunder and lighting.

Another story, from Shin Chobun-shu (新著聞集, 1749, New Tales of Things Known the World Over) called “Saint Neyo and a visit from the Kasha,” had the Buddhist saint Neyo come out to meet the flaming chariot. But instead of a messenger from Hell, it was an ambassador from the Jyodo Pure Lands. The saint begged the kasha for a little bit more time on Earth, and the cart came back exactly a year later to take him to the Pure Lands.

All of the appearances of this kasha were heavily influenced by Buddhism. Most of the stories follow the same theme; a flaming cart that snatches up the bodies of those who have accumulated a lifetime of misdeeds. To protect these bodies from kasha, priests placed rosaries around the necks of the dead bodies, although that was no guarantee. Some said that the kasha was either a messenger of the divine or the infernal depending on the karmic state of the dead body.

Kasha – The Corpse-Eating Cat Demon

So how did this flaming cart from the sky become a cat?

Like much with yokai, the origin of the cat-like form of kasha is said to come from artist Toriyama Sekien. When Sekien drew a kasha for the second volume of his Gazu Hyakki Yagyō (画図百鬼夜行; “The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons) in 1776, he drew the bizarre cat-demon covered in flames. Like his spiritual successor Mizuki Shigeru, Sekien often blended his own imagination in with folklore, and simply invented things as well. He didn’t begin to add notes to his yokai prints until the successive volumes, so we don’t know why he chose to make the kasha a cat.

For whatever reason, Sekien’s influence on yokai was so profound that people accepted the cat-like kasha and the stories began to follow. In Boso manroku(茅窓漫録; Random Talk of Outside Cogon Grass, 1833) a typical story was told of a funeral procession interrupted by a mighty wind and thunder that swept away the coffin as a kasha came down to retrieve the corpse. This kasha was not the flaming chariot however, and was identified as a moryo, an flesh –eating animal spirit, and was drawn resembling a cat—some also point out the resemblance of the Chinese pronunciation of moryo, kuhasha, as being related to the association of cats with kasha.

In another book, Hokuetsu Seppu ( 北越雪譜; Snow Country Tales, 1837), a story is told—said to come from the Tensho era (1573-1592) in Eichigo province (Modern day Nigata prefecture)—where a funeral is interrupted by a gust of wind and a fireball that comes from the sky. Inside the fireball is a massive two-tailed cat (the calling card of the nekomata) that snatches up the coffin. But the priest attending the funeral beat away the kasha with his staff.

Over time, this cat-form of kasha began to dominate, and other Japanese cat legends became associated with kasha. Like the neko mata and the bakeneko, kasha were said to be transformed house pets that lived an unusual span. Others said it was the presences of corpses that cause the transformation. Cats who jumped over coffins were said to be able to wake the dead. A cat left alone too long with an unattended corpse would transform into a kasha and drag the body away. Fear of the kasha became so great that when someone died the household cats were instantly banished, and coffins were even weighed down with rocks to prevent them from being drug away.

This particular element makes logical sense. Cats eating their dead owners is a real thing. The phenomena is called postmortem predation and, while dogs do it too, cats are well known to waste little time making a meal of their former owner. After a day or two alone with a corpse cats will start to chow down. If a person dies alone, and the corpse is undiscovered for weeks, the family pet might make a nice little feast and leave little left to be discovered. Because of this it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how the flaming chariot that comes from the sky to snatch bodies became mixed with the very real situation of a cat eating a corpse.

Other Kasha

Japan has many other yokai similar to kasha, some even using a variation of the name. The kasha baba is one common variation, which has the same story of someone who snatches corpses from funerals but instead of a cat-like creature it is an old woman. In Kanra-machi in Gunma prefecture there was the legend of the tenmaru that snatched corpses from funerals and graveyards. To protect the dead bodies, caskets were protected by bamboo cages as part of the burial.

Read more yokai magical animal tales on hyakumonogatari.com:

Nekomata – The Split-Tailed Cat

The Cat’s Grave

The Tanuki and the White Snake

The Appearance of the Spirit Turtle

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19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. carlotspeak
    May 09, 2012 @ 11:26:06

    Thank you so much..You are super wonderful to compile all these. It is so beneficial. I love the information relating to history and Buddhism/Shitoism etc.

    Reply

  2. 83n831
    May 09, 2012 @ 13:22:46

    According to Pink Tentacle, which has a scan of Shigure Mizuki’s anatomical anatomy of a Kasha from his “Yōkai Daizukai,” the artist added this commentary in side balloons:

    Kasha, a messenger of hell, is a fiery monster known for causing typhoons at funerals. Anatomical features include powerful lungs for generating typhoon-force winds that can lift coffins and carry the deceased away, as well as a nose for sniffing out funerals, a tongue that can detect wind direction, and a pouch containing ice from hell. To create rain, the Kasha spits chunks of this ice through its curtain of perpetual fire.

    [Source: http://pinktentacle.com/2009/10/anatomy-of-japanese-folk-monsters/%5D

    To the point about cats and corpses, it is widely believed in the United States that cats should be strictly barred from any room where a corpse is laid out, for they will “always try to get to the body” (Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, v. 7 [Popular Beliefs and Superstitions], Durham: Duke U Pr., 1964, no. 5427 [p. 84]). This reference also gives a short abstract of other collected versions of the belief, including a notice from Kansas that warns that one should “never take a cat near a dead person lest the cat take the would of the dead or even mutilate the body.”

    I was reminded of this belief when, in 2007, a flurry of news reports came out concerning “Oscar the Nursing Home Cat” who gained an eerie reputation for jumping up on the bed of residents in a Providence (RI) nursing home about four hours before they died of natural causes. While the cat got a commendation from the staff for “compassionate hospice care,” I always suspected that the cause was postmortem predation: the cat’s keen senses detected signs of physical distress that humans didn’t notice and simply waited around for an opportunity to start eating the patient.

    Reply

  3. 83n831
    May 09, 2012 @ 13:25:12

    Somehow my typing of the Kansas belief got garbled. It should say “…lest the cat take the soul of the dead …” Gomenasai.

    Reply

    • carlotspeak
      May 09, 2012 @ 15:12:55

      I love the comment(s) relating to ‘Oscar’ – Kansas nursing home cat. I always have the same thought about my three cats who sleep with/on me every night. Hahaha.

      Reply

  4. Zack Davisson
    May 09, 2012 @ 16:49:00

    I like the connection to Oscar as well. He was just about ready to turn kasha!

    I am not surprised that other cultures have cat/death taboos. They really will eat the dead bodies!

    And thanks for the kind words, carlotspeak. Kasha have a deeper Buddhist connection than most yokai, and that was interesting to explore.

    This article took a lot more digging than I had expected. I was hunting for a connection between the fire chariot and Sekien’s cat-demon, some clue as to why he portrayed a cat but every source I found just said the same thing; that for whatever reason he drew the kasha as a cat, and it has been that way every since. I couldn’t find any pre-Sekien cat-themed kasha stories or illustrations.

    Reply

  5. vilajunkie
    May 10, 2012 @ 07:52:55

    The moryo you mentioned might be interesting to explore too. I’ve read that it’s the Japanese version of the Chinese demon wangliang. Also, the story of the (good) bakeneko Okesa isn’t related to the kasha, is it? With the sort-of similar name and all.

    Oh yeah, one last thing, Zack: While I was looking up the Hell Scrolls last year, I read about there being a Hell of the Gigantic Cockerel. Do you know anything about it? Apparently it’s a hell containing a super-sized basan that engulfs damned souls in flames.

    Reply

  6. MOuryo
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:36:08

    Interesting, so Toriyama did it again. Just like with kamaitachi. Yeah an article about the Moryo would be great.
    BTW: Wasn`t the Basan a creation of Takehara Shunsen?

    Reply

  7. jessicapenot
    May 19, 2012 @ 13:41:25

    Fascinating. Interesting drawing Oscar into this bit of folklore.

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      May 19, 2012 @ 20:24:49

      I can’t take credit for the Oscar connection, but I like it!

      Moryo is on my “to do” list. I think next up I am going to do bakeneko, sticking with the cat theme of my last few posts.

      And the Okesha connection is interesting too. They both have elements of “something reaching down from heaven,” although the kasha are exclusively connected with dead bodies.

      Reply

  8. carlotspeak
    May 20, 2012 @ 03:07:10

    Hooraaahh!!!! ::=^_^=::

    Reply

  9. C Himi
    Jul 25, 2012 @ 12:03:23

    Your knowledge is simply astounding! I have a small collection of antiquarian books on Japanese folklore and even after reading through most of them (carefully! They are about 50-120 years old afterall), there’s not nearly the wealth of information in them that you have been able to provide. How did you glean so much?! Very cool :)

    Reply

  10. Zack Davisson
    Aug 05, 2012 @ 14:36:21

    Lots and lots of research, and mostly Japanese souces.

    You are highly limited if you stick to English sources. Although there is a library’s worth of books in Japanese, most of the English-language books are shallow, catering to the crowd that just wants a quick 2-3 sentence explanation and little else.

    I actually started this blog because I had done so much translation/research for my MA, and it was just sitting around on my computer. I figured I could post it on the internet and share my work with other interested parties. It has been well recieved, so I have kept on translating and posting. I am glad to have interested readers!

    As to those old books–first, I have to admit I am jealous. I have lots of reprints of that kind of book, but no originals. That’s cool. Secondly, from my experience most of those 100+ year old books tried to see Japanese folklore through the cultural lens of established English folklore. That is why you have faries and gobblins running around Japan. They even occasionally tacked on a happy ending to make English readers happy.

    They are great books, and I love my reprints, but they aren’t so handy for research.

    Reply

  11. Anonymous
    Nov 03, 2012 @ 18:21:25

    I’ve bee searching for Kasha pictures on google just to see how many tails they have but i’m really glad i stayed for the article

    It was really interesting and i think i’ll keep coming here for more information on Japanese folklore

    Reply

  12. Zack Davisson
    Nov 03, 2012 @ 19:09:52

    A kasha really should only have one tail. The two-tailed cat is the nekomata. To be fair, people have mixed-and-matched over the years, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a two-tailed kasha out there. But traditionally–one tail.

    And thanks for sticking around! I hope you subscribe and become a regular reader!

    Reply

  13. Stephen James
    Jan 18, 2013 @ 08:16:38

    Hi Zack, Loving the site, but I was wondering about the title of one of the Edo Period sources for Kasha you cite as the Collection of Idle Chat concerning Miraculous things 1687- Shouldn’t the Japanese read Ki-zoudanshu? Or maybe even Zatsudanshu (as in a type of collection with zodan an alternative reading of zatsudan (meaning idle story/talk/yarn)..but the convention amongst Japanese Wahonistes seems to be zoudanshu. The source of my query comes from the follwing entry on wikikotoba:

    きいぞうだんしゅう【奇異雑談集】

    Great Blog though!

    Reply

  14. Stephen James
    Jan 18, 2013 @ 08:23:45

    Sorry, amend that to Kii-zoudanshu! Forgot the i

    Reply

  15. Zack Davisson
    Jan 18, 2013 @ 10:15:52

    Caught in a typo! I left off the “n” at the end, but you are right. It should be Kii-zodanshu. (I don’t personally like the “ou” spelling for the long vowel, because it changes the pronunciation too much in English). Thanks Stephen. I fixed that.

    Reply

  16. Nia
    Mar 15, 2013 @ 22:42:43

    Thank you for the info, I was thinking of using either Kasha or Nekomata as a name for my new boat…

    Reply

  17. Trackback: Japanese Monsters: Kasha | Japan Realm

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